EXCERPT: The Bluff - Author Willa Nash

November 18, 2020

EXCERPT: The Bluff

Enjoy this excerpt from The Bluff, book two in the Calamity Montana series.

Everly

“I love Calamity.”

Especially on a Saturday night.

Outside, the golden streetlamps were winning their battle against the darkness, casting a glow on parked cars and sidewalks. The buildings slumbered, resting until morning, when cheery people would infuse them with life. The stars peeking through the dense tufts of gray clouds were disappearing one by one as the storm drifted over the towering mountains in the distance.

It didn’t take long for the snow to come. One minute, the air was still. The next, it was filled with heavy, fat flakes dumped from the heavens, like the clouds had hefted themselves over the countryside for so long, they just couldn’t keep tight their seams anymore.

A white layer dusted the streets and parked cars. The flakes clung to the leafless branches of the trees. With the snow came a deep chill, the temperature on the bank’s sign four blocks down dropping in steady succession.

I clutched the chunky tan cardigan I’d pulled on earlier, burrowing into its thick collar. The air coming off the glass was crisp, and when I blew out a long breath, a circle of fog formed in front of my mouth.

This spot had become my favorite hangout. Standing at my window on the second floor of this small building in downtown Calamity, Montana, I had a clear view of nearly all of First Street.

In the mornings, I’d pull a chair up to the glass. While sipping my coffee, I’d watch locals arrive to open their shops and offices. In the evenings, I’d swap coffee for wine. After months, I’d memorized the storefronts and shop signs.

I’d dated this guy a few years ago who’d had this obsession with old Westerns. He’d been so desperate to fit into the Nashville country scene, he’d thought he could study black-and-white films to learn how to be a cowboy or outlaw. I’d dumped the idiot poser after two weeks and too many movies.

But Calamity reminded me of those movies, the ones starring John Wayne and James Stewart and Kirk Douglas. Only here, it was authentic, not a Hollywood set. Though it had clearly evolved to fit the modern world, there were times when I could close my eyes and picture Clint Eastwood standing on one side of First, facing off with a villain cloaked in black.

The buildings had mostly square faces, some sided in graying barnwood. Others, like this two-story space where I lived, were covered in faded red brick. On a few of the oldest buildings’ exteriors, the original painted signs still lingered, the hundred-year-old paint refusing to succumb to time and the elements.

My bed was pushed up against a raw brick wall and on the exterior side, the words Candy Shoppe were a ghost in chipped white. Sometimes I’d snuggle into my bed and press my hand against that wall, feeling the letters seep through the hundred-year-old mortar. I’d imagine a line of children swarming into the space below me, wide-eyed and drooling for brightly colored candies in glass jars.

The candy shop was long gone. Now the space, which had been empty for years, was being converted into a fitness studio owned by my landlord and friend, Kerrigan Hale. Once it opened, I’d welcome a yoga or barre class to break up my days.

After nearly five months in Calamity, wasting my days and nights at this window had started to become . . . well, pathetic. I was a twenty-nine-year-old woman who spent her days in this studio apartment, watching the world pass while she stared from her second-floor perch. I had no job. I had no hobbies. I had no aspirations.

Pathetic.

But safe.

This town and this window, where I could watch people come and go, had become my sanctuary.

Was my future as empty and black as the night sky? Yes. Was I stuck in a rut? Absolutely. Did I care?

For months, that answer would have been a resounding no. No, I didn’t care. But lately, my father’s favorite question had been rattling around the back of my mind, creating enough noise it was getting harder to ignore.

Everly, what are you doing with your life?

For the past ten years, my answer had been the same. Singing. I’d wanted to be a singer. And I’d chased that future, sprinting through my days, stretching for that dream, even though no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t seem to get a hand on it.

Five months ago, I’d stopped running. My legs had given out. After a stalker, a near-death experience and a decade of disappointment, singing was history.

What was I doing with my life?

Hell if I knew.

My phone dinged in my cardigan’s pocket. I dug it out to see a text from Lucy.

Want to come over for dinner tomorrow night?

I typed out a quick sure, then tucked my phone away and leaned against the window, the cold from the glass seeping through my sweater.

Lucy lived in Calamity with her husband, Duke, the local sheriff. She was my best friend and the reason I was here in Montana.

The two of us had grown up together in upstate New York. Together, we’d played with Barbies and princess dolls. We’d learned how to roller-blade in our cul-de-sac, scraping knees and deciding roller blades were evil. We’d built fairy gardens in her backyard and obstacle courses in mine.

And we’d sung.

Lucy had always loved to sing. She’d make up songs about riding the bus or going to swimming lessons or covering a driveway in sidewalk-chalk drawings. Music was as much a part of Lucy as her blood and heartbeat. Naturally, whatever she’d loved, I’d loved. It went both ways. Her voice was magical, and though it had never come as easily for me, I could carry a more-than-decent tune.

Singing had been another connection, another bond, and when she’d decided to move to Nashville to pursue a singing career, asking if I’d come too, the obvious answer had been yes. With stars in my eyes, I’d dropped out of college to move to a new city with my best friend, full of hope and ambition.

Lucy and I had been roommates for ten years, and as her career had soared, mine had stagnated. But I’d never stopped trying.

Months standing at this window had given me ample time to think. To examine the past.

Had I worked so hard to become a singer because I’d actually loved singing? Or had I done it because I was too stubborn to admit defeat? Or too scared to admit I didn’t know what I wanted from my life?

The truth was, I didn’t want to be a singer anymore. Unlike Lucy, I didn’t crave the music like it was my next breath. The stalker hadn’t ruined it for her completely. But me?

Lucy was having a hard time understanding why I was just . . . done. With Duke’s support, she’d put the stalking behind her. She was writing songs and working on a new album. She sang at Calamity Jane’s bar with the local band.

All while I stood at the glass, staring into the future without a clue which direction it would take me.

My parents called me lost.

I preferred in limbo. And for a little bit longer, I was going to stay in limbo.

Because limbo was safe too.

I loved my small, sheltered apartment. I enjoyed my lazy-day routine. I needed to be the one who watched, instead of the one being watched.

So . . . limbo. Until something called to me and I started living again.

Minutes ticked away as I stood at the window, and below me, the streets of Calamity were quiet. With nothing but a few vehicles parked outside of Jane’s bar, there wasn’t much to watch but the falling snow, so I retreated from the window.

The lights in the apartment were off. I might stare at the people outside, but I didn’t want them staring back. I used the blue glow from the microwave’s clock to navigate across the open room. Wine in hand, I sat on the cream sofa I’d staged across the room from my bed. My tablet rested on the whitewashed oval coffee table, and I opened it to the book I’d been reading earlier.

My second favorite pastime these days was reading true-crime novels. I’d lose myself in the mystery and inner workings of a serial killer’s mind. Somehow learning about the mentally insane made it easier to accept my stalker’s actions. In these novels, I learned why the villain was the villain. The motivations were right there, in black and white.

Lucy and I didn’t have a lot of answers about our stalker. The woman had been sick. But that explanation had never seemed like enough. So I read because maybe I’d find an answer in one of these books.

The snow outside continued to fall as I devoured the pages, reading in the dark until my phone dinged. I dug it out. An email from my mother?

It was nearly one in the morning in Montana, making it almost three a.m. on the East Coast. My mother had always been an early riser, especially during tax season, using the predawn hours to fire off a string of terse emails.

At least, I assumed her emails were all terse. I’d never received one with a gentle tone or friendly greeting, so that must be how she communicated with everyone.

Or maybe just me.

 

Everly,

Your father and I are waiting for your response to our discussion last week. We’ve set aside an hour to call you this evening at five o’clock Mountain Standard Time. Please come prepared.

Cynthia Sanchez-Christian CPA, MPAc

 

Her emails were never signed Mom. There was never an I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m mad at you. I’m happy for you. Because Cynthia Sanchez-Christian was apathetic when it came to her daughter. Probably the reason I avoided her.

Five o’clock. That meant I had less than twenty-four hours until I got the privilege of hearing her disinterest, because skipping our scheduled call would only lead to more emails I had no desire to receive.

I deleted the note and stood, tossing my tablet onto the couch before making my way back to the window. I leaned against the frame, feeling the sheer white, floor-to-ceiling curtains drift over my shoulder.

I’d been in Calamity since September. After the stalker, neither Lucy nor I’d had much of a desire to return to Nashville and retrieve our belongings, so we’d had clothes and other personal items shipped to Montana. The furniture, those pieces not riddled with bullet holes, had been donated and forgotten. Leaving me with the blank slate that was this apartment.

Kerrigan had cleaned the space up before I’d moved in, hauling away junk and scrubbing it from top to bottom. But she’d left the raw edge, the brick and the glass and the unfinished ceiling. I’d softened the room with textures, like the curtains and my plush white bed. Everything I’d bought was a shade of white or cream. What the apartment lacked in color inside, Calamity made up for outside.

Last fall, when the trees had turned a kaleidoscope of red and orange and lime green, I’d left the curtains wide open so the colors could bleed inside. Then the winter blues had taken their place. I couldn’t wait for the greens of spring and the yellows of summer.

They’d brighten the room and draw me outside.

I didn’t have a car. I hadn’t needed one in Nashville. So I walked wherever I had to go. The grocery store. The bank. The tiny movie theater. If ever I was in need, Lucy would drive me the farther distances with her and Duke’s German shepherd puppy, Cheddar, riding shotgun.

Small-town life was a welcome change from the city bustle. According to Duke, summer in Calamity would be busier. Tourists flocked to the area, crowding the streets and shops. But tonight, as the clock slipped into the early hours of tomorrow, it was peaceful. Silent.

Across the street and two blocks down, the electric-orange glow from Jane’s neon bar sign tinted the falling snow into ginger flakes. There were only two cars out front taking up the diagonal parking spaces closest to the door. Like they knew I’d been waiting, two men pushed outside, shaking hands before getting into their vehicles, their taillights soon disappearing.

First Street was empty.

Loneliness, darker than the sky and colder than the snow, seeped into my bones.

What was I doing with my life?

I bolted from the window and crossed the room for the coat hook beside my door. I shrugged on the forest-green parka I’d bought before Christmas and stepped into a pair of knee-high rubber boots. Then I was out the door before I could convince myself to climb into the safety of my bed.

Life in Calamity—my life, at least—was dull, a characteristic I was more than content to embrace. Except at the moment, without a distraction, the question clawing at my conscience, the question that made the loneliness sink deeper, would plague me all night.

What was I doing with my life?

Not tonight. That would be the topic of tomorrow’s call with my parents, and I wasn’t going to overthink it now.

I checked the peephole to make sure the stairwell was empty before unlocking the door. Since there was only one apartment up here, these stairs were mine. But just because my stalker was dead didn’t mean the fears she’d created had perished with her.

The landing outside the door was empty, no surprise, so I made a break for it, navigating the gray staircase to the side exit door that dropped me on First Street. I checked its peephole too, then inched the door open, confirming I was alone. When I stepped outside, the winter air cooled my lungs.

Though it was warmer than I’d expected. The snowflakes that landed on my brown hair instantly melted. Not wanting to linger alone, I hurried down the sidewalk, listening for any sound of someone behind me. But the street was deserted and the only boots leaving tracks in the snow were my own.

The red-orange light from Jane’s beckoned—along with a stiff drink. Wine wasn’t going to cut it tonight. It wasn’t going to numb the anxiety creeping up my spine, making my heart beat too fast, my breathing too shallow. Maybe venturing out into the darkness hadn’t been the best idea.

Once upon a time, I’d been fearless. A two-block walk on a well-lit sidewalk wouldn’t have made me think twice. But I was practically running by the time I reached Jane’s door.

I flew inside, stomping my boots as I surveyed the area.

Empty. Almost.

Except for Jane herself and a man on a stool, sitting dead center at the bar.

I weaved my way past the tables in the center of the room, scanning the tall booths that hugged the walls. They were empty too. The stage to the left of the bar was deserted but the mic stands had been left behind. The band’s equipment was shoved against the wall. Even the jukebox in the corner was off.

“I’m closing in forty minutes,” Jane said as she spotted me crossing the room, holding up a finger. “Not one second longer. Want to get home before the roads get dicey.”

Jane Fulson was a bit of a legend in Calamity. I’d met her only a few times on the nights Lucy had dragged me out for a cheeseburger and a drink, but Jane wasn’t a woman you forgot easily.

Her white hair was tied up in a twist with a few tendrils falling down behind her ears. Her skin was permanently tan, the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth earned from years of hard work. Though it was open to the public, when you walked through the door to her bar, you knew you were in her bar. At Jane’s, the customer wasn’t always right. She was.

“One drink,” I promised and unzipped my coat, taking the stool one down from the other patron.

I cringed at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. The snow hadn’t been kind to my hair and it hung in limp strands down my shoulders to my waist. I hadn’t bothered with makeup this morning and my nose was red from the walk over.

Thankfully, the light was dim. Any brightness from the beer and liquor signs adorning the walls was soaked up by the tall ceilings and plethora of wood décor.

I cast the guy at my side a brief glance. Then did a double take as my mouth went dry.

Hello. Where had this hottie been hiding? I’d spent my fair share of time watching Calamity’s residents and I would have remembered him.

His broad shoulders were curled in as he bent to the bar, hunched over his glass. The ice rattled in his tumbler as he stirred the cocktail with a tiny yellow straw. His profile was perfect. Straight forehead. Strong nose. A chiseled jaw covered in stubble. Luscious lips turned down in a scowl.

He was wearing a long-sleeved thermal that molded to his roped arms. Strength oozed off his body and the muscled definition of his back. The face and the body were perfection, but it was the energy he exuded that rendered me awestruck.

He had this raw and rough edge. A simmering brood that wafted off his body in waves. A warning. A message. Stay away. A bead of sweat formed at my temple and I struggled to drag in the heavy, hot air.

The man sat just feet away, but he was in a world of his own. An invisible wall separated his stool from the others, keeping others locked away.

“What can I get you?” Jane slapped a paper coaster in front of me.

I blinked, lost in the haze of this man and forced my eyes forward. “Uh . . . gin.”

“Anything with that gin?” Jane asked, her gaze darting between me and the handsome stranger.

“Tonic, please.”

She nodded and went to work preparing my drink as I shrugged off my coat and put it on the stool at my side.

I was in simple black leggings. Beneath my cardigan, I’d pulled on a white tank top over my sports bra. There was a dollop of salsa on the hem from my dinner earlier when I’d lost control of a diced tomato. I shifted the edge of my cardigan to cover it up and ran a hand through my hair.

This was what happened when I acted on impulse. I ran into the one hot guy in Calamity and I was practically in pajamas with bedhead.

High five, Ev. Next time, just stay home.

Jane returned with my drink, setting it on the coaster before shooting a look at the clock over her shoulder. “Forty minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She grimaced at the ma’am before disappearing through a doorway that connected the bar to the kitchen.

Leaving me and my companion in utter silence.

The air around us was stifling. I lifted my drink with a shaking hand, sipping and savoring the juniper taste. I was tempted to gulp, to cool the fire thrumming through my veins, but I sipped.

Who was this guy? Curiosity got the best of me and I looked up to the mirror.

A pair of the bluest eyes I’d ever seen met my gaze. Blue like the ocean on a sunny day. Blue like the evening skies above the Montana mountains. An endless blue that swallowed me whole.

I tore my gaze away from the mirror and turned to his profile, wanting to see that blue up close.

It took him a moment to look over, and when he did, he only dipped his chin in a silent greeting. Then he went back to his drink, his shoulders hitching closer to his ears as he tried to shut me out.

His sandy-blond hair was cut short but the longer strands on top were damp. He hadn’t been here long either.

“It’s not fair,” I blurted.

He looked up at the mirror, at my reflection. Then he slowly brought his glass to his lips. The yellow straw was bent, folded over the rim and held by one of his long fingers. His grip practically engulfed the glass whole. “What’s not fair?”

Sweet lord, he had a good voice too. A shiver rolled over my shoulders at the rich and gravelly timbre. “Your eyelashes.”

He blinked, then took another sip.

I was sure he’d just keep on drinking and ignoring my presence for the next thirty-seven minutes, except then he turned and . . . bam. Those eyes trapped me like a bird in a cage.

No man had ever made me feel this way with a single glance. My pulse raced. I wobbled on my seat. Desire bloomed in my core. The full force of his Persian blues sent a tidal wave of ecstasy rushing my way.

“Who are you?” I whispered.

His eyebrows came together. “Who are you?”

“E-Everly Christian.” My tongue felt too big for my mouth.

He nodded and went back to his drink.

No way. He wasn’t getting off that easy. “Now it’s your turn. Who are you?”

“No one special.”

I hummed. “Nice to meet you, No One Special. Mind if I call you Hot Bar Guy instead?”

The corner of his mouth turned up.

Victory. I hid my smile in my drink, taking a long sip. I’d never been good at subtle. Shameless flirt was more my style, and though I hadn’t inherited much from my mother, her innate talent for being blunt seemed to have stuck. Good or bad, I usually said whatever came to mind.

“What brings you down here tonight?” I asked, not expecting an answer.

He didn’t disappoint. He simply sipped from his glass, his tongue darting out to wet his bottom lip.

Did he have any idea that just his presence was making me squirm on this stool?

“I was in need of a stiff drink.” I answered my own question. “And maybe a little excitement.”

“Probably should have come here earlier. You missed your window for excitement.”

I quirked an eyebrow and met his gaze in the mirror. “Did I?”

***

The sound of traffic woke me. The slush of tires on melting snow. I blinked awake, lifting off my pillow to shove the hair from my face. I didn’t need to check beneath the rumpled sheet to know I was stark naked.

And the space beside me was empty.

I flopped into my pillow and stretched as a smile spread across my face. There was an ache in my core. My muscles throbbed. I’d been deliciously used and pleasured last night.

Sometime before dawn, Hot Bar Guy—Hux—had disappeared without a word.

My laugh echoed in the empty apartment. “I love Calamity.”

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